President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. will not get directly involved in Syria, refusing even to provide arms to the rebels, unless Bashar Assad crosses the “red line” of using chemical weapons. It was never explicitly said what the U.S. would do in that contingency, giving rise to the suspicion that the answer is “not much.”
Well, now Israel has called Obama’s bluff. A senior Israeli intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, has said publicly what has previously only been rumored: “The regime has increasingly used chemical weapons.” Specifically, Israeli intelligence believes, as the New York Times notes, that a March 19 attack “involved the use of sarin gas, the same agent used in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13,” and that the “attacks killed ‘a couple of dozens’…in what Israel judged as ‘a test’ by President Bashar al-Assad of the international community’s response.”
If this was a test by Assad, then the international community–read: the United States–has flunked it. The Obama administration has taken refuge in the claim that the evidence isn’t definitive, which it seldom is in the field of intelligence, especially if you are bent on convincing yourself that something isn’t true. Because if Assad did use chemical weapons, Obama would have to do what he most wants to avoid–step up U.S. involvement in Syria.
It’s clear what is needed: Western airpower to shut down Assad’s air force and Western arms to balance the advantage that Iranian and Russian arms have given the Assad regime.
In an interview with the Financial Times, General Selim Idriss, head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, said “he needed $35m-$40m a month to pay $100 monthly salaries to fighters who have signed up to the supreme command – funds that he lacks.” Without those funds, extremists such as the Nusra Front will continue to gain ground. With them, Idriss believes the more moderate forces that he represents could make real progress: “Fighters go to where there is money and weapons and if I had the means … within one or two months everyone would join.”
Perhaps Idriss is being overoptimistic in terms of what he could do with more support. But what is to be lost–beyond a little bit of money–in testing the veracity of his claims? Certainly sending more money to pay fighters and arms to equip them would seem to be the least we can do given the undeniable atrocities Assad continues to perpetrate–and given the danger that if we don’t help the moderates, extremists will seize power after he is gone.